Audiobooks narrated by a text-to-speech AI are now available via Apple’s Books service, in a move with potentially huge implications for the multi-billion dollar audiobook industry. Apple describes the new “digital narration” feature on its website as making “the creation of audiobooks more accessible to all,” by reducing “the cost and complexity” of producing them for authors and publishers.
The feature represents a big shift from the current audiobook model, which often involves authors narrating their own books in a process that can take weeks and cost thousands for a publisher. Digital narration has the potential to allow smaller publishers and authors to put out an audiobook at a much lower cost.
Apple’s website says the feature is initially only available for romance and fiction books, where it lists two available digital voices: Madison and Jackson. (Two more voices, Helena and Mitchell, are on the way for nonfiction books). The service is only available in English at present, and Apple is oddly specific about the genres of books its digital narrators are able to tackle. “Primary category must be romance or fiction (literary, historical, and women’s fiction are eligible; mysteries and thrillers, and science fiction and fantasy are not currently supported),” its website reads.
If you search for “AI narration” in the Books app, you’ll find a series of romance novels with a small notice saying they’re “Narrated by Apple Books.” It also lists the specific name of the artificial narrator used.
“This is an Apple Books audiobook narrated by a digital voice based on a human narrator,” reads each audiobook listing that uses the company’s digital narration service. Listings include a combination of free and paid audiobooks, and the artificial voices sound about as good as you’d expect — perfectly intelligible, but with an unmistakably artificial edge that lacks the warmth of a human storyteller. Though that will likely improved as AI voice tech evolves.
According to The Guardian, which was first to report the new feature, Apple had intended to launch it in November, but delayed its release because Elon Musk’s chaotic acquisition of Twitter and layoffs at Meta were dominating news headlines at the time. Apple has reportedly been approaching independent publishers about narrating their books, offering to shoulder the production costs while paying out royalties to authors.
Apple’s website says that publishers and authors retain audiobook rights, and can put out other versions of the audiobook if they choose.
Apple’s approach to digital narration is the opposite of competitor Amazon’s, whose Audible rules explicitly state that submitted audiobooks “must be narrated by a human.” Notably, its Kindles used to offer a text-to-speech feature, but this was discontinued a decade ago after copyright concerns were raised. At least one AI-narrated audiobook has appeared on Amazon’s service in the past, according to this report from Wired, but it was removed after being reported.
In addition to Amazon, Spotify has also been investing in making audiobooks the third pillar of its streaming service alongside music and podcasts. But Spotify’s audiobook ambitions have mainly made headlines because of its clashes with Apple’s rules around in-app payments, which Spotify claims are “choking competition” and are “anticompetitive.”